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Barbara Swell has created a legacy with not only old-time recipes, but also old-time ways of bringing them to fruition.
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Sour Milk Steamed Boston Brown Bread
Sour Milk Steamed Boston Brown Bread, an 1896 recipe cooked in canning jars.
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Swell is the author of eight historic cookbooks.
Barbara Swell has always had a taste for history. No, not the droll facts and figures that we usually came to dread in high school classes, but rather the delectable, savory delights of old-fashioned cooking. As a woman on a mission to preserve the vanishing traditions of culinary heritage, Swell can quickly have you longing for the simple pleasures of days gone by with just one slice of her legendary pie.
Swell is the author of 10 books that have captured recipes from long ago so that they are never forgotten. With titles such as “The Lost Art of Pie Making – Made Easy” and “Secrets of the Great Old-Timey Cooks,” it is clear to see where her passion lies. Her books feature recipes from the 19th and 20th centuries, with modern adaptations for ingredients and preparation as needed, but they are also glimpses into the lives of families from those eras, too. Photos, trivia, kitchen lore, stories and proverbs are interspersed throughout, creating an appreciation for every aspect of a cook’s life in days gone by. Just like her subject matter, Swell’s zeal for time-honored cooking methods also has deep roots in her past.
In a cozy country cabin adjacent to her 1880s home in Asheville, N.C., Swell has created an homage to her ancestors’ early kitchens that she remembers so well from her childhood. The light and airy space that she uses to teach cooking classes is primarily decorated with utensils and implements from the kitchens of her aunt and grandmother. Cross-stitched samplers hang on the walls. A coat rack is packed with fabric aprons. From the basket of wooden rolling pins to the vintage glassware and mixing bowls, visitors might feel as if they have stepped back into time into their grandmother’s kitchen, and that is exactly the way that Swell wants it.
She fondly remembers her own grandmother’s kitchen in West Virginia, where she grew up for 10 years.
“It was always a food frenzy when visiting my grandmother,” Swell laughs. “Even though she had to kind of make-do, the house was always full of flowers and the kitchen always smelled like gingerbread.”
Her grandmother wasn’t the only one who had culinary talents, though.
“All of the women in my family were great cooks. The holiday feasts would go on forever!” Swell says. Even at the early age of 10, Swell could appreciate the foods being served and recognized that the recipes should not be lost. She started gathering together recipes from her older relatives, and continues to gather time-worn recipes even to this day.
Swell would eventually become a family therapist, and the food traditions that were such an integral part of her childhood would soon serve her well in healing families.
“I would always work with people in their homes, and I worked with families around food,” she says. “That was always the way that I connected with people. I would ask a family to eat dinner every day with one another for a week and then call me back. Half of the time they would call back and say ‘We don’t need you anymore. We’re talking!’ They started to communicate around the dinner table, which was great.”
Strengthening bonds is still what Swell does with food, although today she focuses entirely on writing books and teaching cooking classes, whether at the John C. Campbell Folk School or in the family-like atmosphere of her cooking cabin.
Always on the hunt for the next great book topic, Swell never knows what will pique her interest. Her book, “The 1st American Cookie Lady,” was the result of a mysterious 1917 cooking diary that Swell found unused. The author, Anna “Cookie” Covington, had set out to record all of her favorite cookie recipes from the 1880s to World War I, yet it had never been given to her daughter as originally planned. Swell published the diary to pay tribute to the woman who worked so hard nearly 100 years ago to do what Swell now strives to do today.
It probably would have been hard for Swell’s grandmother to imagine what a deep and lasting influence she would have on her granddaughter’s life, but the culinary world is definitely benefiting from their lasting bond.
“I try to pattern my life after her,” Swell says.
For those of us who either dream of or remember the simple days of home-cooked food made from wholesome ingredients that could bring a family together, we say thanks.
For more information on Barbara Swell’s classes and books, visit logcabincooking.com.
See pumpkin pie and cherry pie recipes from one of Swell's cookbooks by picking up a copy of our Nov/Dec 2012 issue, on newsstands Oct. 23!